Power in the darkness

Seems it’s the week for political gaffes. First we had Labour Leader Phil Goff proposing that the unemployment benefit should, at least temporarily, be exempted from abatement because of the unemployed person’s spouse’s income.

Now, I actually back Goff’s idea – I’d go even further, and suggest that it shouldn’t just be for the recession if we’re genuine about opposing discrimination on the basis of marital status.

But to use Bruce Burgess, whom it was later revealed owned two investment properties, as his poster boy to back his proposal is just plain dumb. It opened him, and what I believe to be a sound policy proposal, up to ridicule which he duly received even from his own backers.

Then, to top off the week, we see National’s Justice Minister Simon Power proposing a major reform to stop the sexual history of rape-case complainants being brought into evidence.

The problem for Simon Power is that it hasn’t been able to be admitted as evidence for over 20 years. Former Auckland District Law Society President and senior barrister Gary Gotlieb responded:

I’m just gobsmacked that we’ve got a lawyer who is Minister of Justice who has got no idea what the law is. How much confidence does that give you in our politicians who are making law and don’t know what the law is.

Power subsequently attempted to defend his speech by stating:

But this relates to sexual history with people other than the accused. Mr Power said currently the previous sexual relationship between the complainant and the accused does not need the judge’s agreement before being brought up in court.

I don’t believe that explanation for a minute. Like Goff, Power was caught out trying to get the big media hit without doing his homework.

Make it permanent, Phil

Labour leader Phil Goff is reported in the NZ Herald as:

…challenging the Government to seriously consider temporarily paying the full unemployment benefit to workers laid off because of the downturn regardless of the income of their spouses.

He said those losing their jobs were carrying a “disproportionate burden” of the recession and the National Government was not doing enough to help them.

He suggested the requirement that a spouse’s income be means-tested be suspended, if only during the recession.

Why only during the recession, Phil? Despite the Human Rights Act, New Zealand’s welfare system continues to discriminate on the basis of family status. If someone is unemployed and their partner earns over $80 a week, their benefit entitlement is abated by 70 cents for every additional dollar earned. If their partner earns as little as $534 a week (before tax), they are entitled to no benefit at all.

Couples are taxed as individuals, so why don’t they receive benefits, which are really just negative taxation, as individuals?

And, in contrast to unemployment and sickness benefits, weekly compensation under ACC is an individual entitlement, and has no spousal income test.

Isn’t it time we started to bring the welfare system into the 21st century and get rid of the spousal income test there too – not just for the recession, as Phil Goff has suggested, but permanently.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett scoffed at the Goff’s suggestion:

I doubt many Kiwis would consider that a good use of the considerably fewer resources this Government now has. I’d be interested to hear what Mr Goff would cut, or which taxes he would put up, to fund such an initiative.

Well, okay, it would be expensive, but the discriminatory provisions applying to benefits could be progressively phased out over a period of time so the cost doesn’t all hit at one. Fairness and justice don’t always come cheap.

And how to fund it? Well we could start by reversing last year’s income tax cut, so the money goes to those who most need it.